Greenwashing and how to spot it

The more consumers educate themselves about sustainability and demand transparency from companies, the more companies strive to prove that they’re sustainable and trustworthy. When plenty of corporations claim that they’re sustainable and green, it becomes hard for consumers to identify the reliability of these claims. That’s why we decided to dedicate this week’s blogpost to greenwashing - one of the alarming issues in a sustainable community.

Greenwashing is a deceptive marketing strategy used by brands to mislead or deceive its customers on how its business, products, and/or services affect the environment. Greenwashing happens when companies try to make themselves or their goods sound more eco-friendly or environmentally-safe than they actually are so that consumers believe they are ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly.

However, greenwashing isn’t a new concept. If you stayed in a hotel before, you’re familiar with the “re-use the towels to save the environment” claim, right? Well, it turned out it’s a profit-saving tactic for hotels rather than an environment-saving aspect. “Greenwashing” as a term was first introduced 30 years ago in response to this hotel sign.

What is falling under Greenwashing? It involves unverified claims and the use of misleading green images by companies to prove their product is all-natural, eco-friendly, and safe. Companies usually build specific marketing strategies and organize events to show how their company is committed to caring for the environment.

According to a study conducted by the European Commission, 42 percent of online advertisements for green and eco-friendly products were false or misleading. Design, colors, key phrases, irrelevant claims, and deceptive statistics are all strategies that companies use to lure in consumers by leading them to believe that the product is better for the Earth. 


But don’t be hard on yourself. It’s hard to identify true sustainability heroes from false ones, but it’s not impossible! Here are some tips for beginners on how to avoid greenwashing:

1. Details are important

It’s crucial to look for as many details as possible when brands make statements about their eco-friendliness. It’s not enough for a brand to say made from “sustainable fabric”. Check what fabric it actually is. For example, some fashion brands claim they use vegan leather when actually they’re using toxic PVC made from petroleum. They’re not lying it’s vegan—but it’s not sustainable at all.

2. Look into a brand’s “About” and/or “Sustainability” pages

You can learn a lot about what a brand is or isn’t doing by diving into their About pages. Again: the more specific the better! Photos, videos, certifications, and/or proof of audits are also great things to pay attention to. If it’s a larger brand, look for a Sustainability Report that details their environmental impact and the progress they are making. Are the brand’s sustainability measures or goals specific? How are they holding themselves accountable to those goals? How regularly are they publishing their progress? Have they met their previous goals? What kind of investments in resources (time and money) are they making to reach these goals?

3. Ambiguity

Ambiguity is quite often used as a marketing tactic by businesses to try and greenwash consumers into believing that their brand is green. The way that corporations use ambiguity to greenwash is by using vague claims/words such as ‘all natural’ that are so broad that they can be misinterpreted to give an eco-friendly image of the brand.

4. Hidden tradeoffs

A brand may be hiding an even bigger issue behind their green screen — and it’s not always strictly environmental. One example is when fast fashion brands promote separate recycled or sustainable clothing lines, but then fail to disclose that that clothing is developed through exploitative or not-so-eco-friendly conditions.